Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Off to a shaky start

Despite doubts over the sincerity of Tunisia’s ruling Al-Nahda movement engaging in national dialogue, sessions have begun aiming to end the country’s political crisis, writes Kamel Abdallah in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Tunisian national dialogue convened its opening session on Wednesday this week, and it is hoped that the Islamist-oriented Al-Nahda movement, which heads the ruling troika government, and the secularist opposition will now be able to reach a compromise that will resolve the political crisis that has been plaguing the country.

The fact that these two major political forces have come together to talk has been largely the product of the mediating efforts of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the largest and oldest syndicate in the country.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the UGTT announced that 23 October would be the official date for the commencement of the dialogue, which is aimed at completing a roadmap out of the crisis. This roadmap calls for the creation of a technocratic government three weeks after the resignation of the current one, to be followed by the ratification of the country’s new constitution and electoral law.

The national dialogue had originally been scheduled to begin before the Eid Al-Adha holiday. However, it had to be postponed due to a dispute over the fate of the current government, headed by Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh. The Al-Nahda movement had persisted in its refusal to dismiss this government before the end of the national dialogue, while the opposition had stipulated its dismissal as a precondition for the talks.

The crisis, which has lasted for more than two months, has brought the country to a political standstill. It was not until late last month that the UGTT, after considerable negotiating efforts, together with three other civil society organisations succeeded in persuading the opposing sides to engage in a dialogue aiming to set the country back on course to democratic transformation.

Algeria had also entered as a mediator in the conflict after Al-Nahda leader Rachid Al-Ghanouchi visited Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika who had recently returned from France where he had been recovering from a stroke. Another influential player has been Beji Caid Essebsi, president of the Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) Party, which many observers and Tunisian revolutionaries claim counts persons affiliated with the ousted regime of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali in its ranks and who represent both sides of the current political crisis.

Reports in the Tunisian press indicate that Bouteflika advised the political forces in Tunisia against dissolving the country’s Constituent Assembly and instead to engage in a comprehensive national dialogue in order to resolve the current crisis. The Tunisian opposition had been calling for both the dismissal of the current cabinet and for the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which was elected in 2011. The Islamist-oriented Al-Nahda Party had strenuously rejected both demands.

Though a compromise has now been reached, the arrangements for the opening session of the dialogue did not proceed as smoothly as had been hoped, due to further wrangling between the political forces.

The session was delayed by three hours because Al-Nahda refused to sign off on the roadmap for the dialogue, a chief condition set by the UGTT and the other syndicate organisations. Al-Nahda’s refusal triggered an outcry among the opposition forces and confirmed what many observers have called a crisis of confidence between Al-Nahda and the opposition forces that had come together to form the Tunisian National Salvation Front (FSN).

However, Al-Nahda eventually caved in to intensive pressure from all sides, signing the protocol and agreeing to the principle of dissolving the government it heads so that this can be replaced within three weeks by a government of independent technocrats that will administer the country for the remainder of the interim period.

Yet, one member of the troika government has still not signed the roadmap, and this is the Congress for the Republic Party headed by interim President Moncef Marzouki. All the other parties taking part in the national dialogue have agreed to the roadmap as it stands, and in a statement made at the opening session of the dialogue Marzouki said that if the dialogue failed this could imperil national security and paralyse the Tunisian economy.

“The threat of terrorism is serious, even if it is under control,” Marzouki said, adding that uprooting terrorism from the country would be a long and multifaceted process.

In his speech at the opening session, chairman of the Constituent Assembly Mustafa bin Jaafar said that the country was at a critical juncture and that there was a need for consensus among all Tunisians. This was especially the case, Bin Jaafar said, in the light of the political assassinations that had sought to obstruct the course of the transition after the country’s 2011 revolution.

He stressed the need for a real and comprehensive national reconciliation that would serve as the cornerstone for progress and the beginning of the road to a brighter future for Tunisian youth and would furnish a propitious climate for fair elections.

In his opening remarks, UGTT Secretary-General Hussein Al-Abbasi said that Tunisia needed to call on the whole spectrum of political opinion and that it was time to abandon any notion of a majority being against a minority. He called for an independent investigation into the assassinations of Tunisian opposition members earlier this year and concluded by urging participants in the dialogue to respect the agreements they reached and to set a timetable for their implementation.

The dialogue, set to last three weeks, is expected to cover a range of issues, foremost among which are the role of the Constituent Assembly, which needs to put the final touches on the draft of the country’s new constitution, the date for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, and the creation of a body to oversee these elections. The opposition believes that many obstacles lie ahead for the dialogue, especially given its lack of trust in Al-Nahda.

Another major task that lies ahead is agreement on a new interim government. The opposition hopes to nominate independent technocrats to the government to help it deal with the economic strains the country has been experiencing. It has laid the blame for Tunisia’s economic problems squarely at the feet of Al-Nahda, which it accuses of incompetent economic management and of exacerbating the situation through sheltering extremists.

Tunisia’s economic and security problems have put Al-Nahda in an unenviable position, and anger against the movement has now mounted to such a degree that it has begun to fear that it could meet the same fate as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is this fear that has propelled the movement to make the kind of concessions than it was originally unwilling to make.

In its first comments on the start of the national dialogue in Tunisia, the French government, still very influential in North Africa, expressed the hope that the two sides would succeed in concluding the political transition process with a new constitution and free and democratic elections.

At the same time, Agence France Press, citing a senior Tunisian interior ministry official, reported that Tunisian security agencies had succeeded in breaking up a terrorist cell specialising in the manufacture of hand grenades. The cell was reported to belong to the Ansar Al-Sharia group that the Tunisian government has classed as a terrorist organisation, also issuing a warrant for the arrest of its founder, Seif Allah bin Hussein.

The official said that Tunisian security officials had brought the activities of the cell to a complete halt, and he dismissed claims circulated by its supporters over the Internet that it had recently resumed charitable and proselytising work. Referring to pictures meant to corroborate this claim, the official said that “those are old pictures, and they are publishing them for the purposes of deception and in order to create the impression that they are still coherent.”

Such an impression could not be more false, he said, as the organisation had received a succession of painful blows with the dismantlement of its paramilitary and security wings, the arrest of the leaders of these, and the confiscation of the weapons that had been smuggled into the country from Libya.

Meanwhile, clashes are continuing between an extremist group that the Tunisian authorities claim belongs to Ansar Al-Sharia and the Tunisian army and security forces in the Shaanbi Mountain area in the northwest of the country. While official sources have stated that nine members of the group have been killed, military commanders in the field place the figure at 13.

Combing and siege operations are still in progress in the area, the commanders say, adding that the noose has been tightened around the necks of the armed groups. The groups will be eliminated “within a couple of hours,” they say, because the armed forces have pinpointed and cordoned off the location of the extremist elements.

Observers believe that the purpose of the operation launched by Ansar Al-Sharia earlier this week was to break the isolation of the armed groups in the southwest of the country by distracting the attention of the security forces, which had been closing in on the groups.


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